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The power of narrative in business

Here’s what Impact Council members had to say about the role of authentic storytelling and honest communication as a key tenet of business in the decades to come.

The power of narrative in business
[Photo: Iana Kotova/iStock]
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This article is part of the New New Rules of Business.

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The Fast Company Impact Council, an invitation-only group of corporate leaders, entrepreneurial founders, and other leaders from across industries, gathered on June 30 to share their insights. Members split into small groups, moderated by Fast Company editors, and shared their perspectives on how they are managing and innovating amid a trio of crises: the global pandemic, the economic slowdown, and calls for social justice in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.

In this roundtable discussion, led by senior editor Amy Farley, top executives talked about how companies build narratives that can resonate with consumers and with employees, and how the role of authentic storytelling and honest communication will be a key tenet of business in the decades to come. Participants in this session, in no particular order, were the executive director of MIT Media Lab Deb Roy, Esri CMO Marianna Kantor, Integral Ad Science CEO Lisa Utzschneider, Nextdoor’s head of marketing Maryam Banikarim, McKinsey partner lead on media and tech teams Jonathan Dunn, and cofounder and chief strategy officer of Good Money Andrew Masanto.

Deb Roy: We’re getting good at casting shadows and having machines that can make out contours or shapes of narratives at different scales, and then putting those two together and understanding (and predicting in some cases) how particular audience segments may respond to different forms of narratives, and different choices—all the way down to specific words and phrases that are chosen, all the way up to the emotional contours of an entire video sequences.

One example is leveraging found data. We’ve been doing a lot of work with Twitter, both the fire hose of hundreds of millions of tweets per day and also the network structure, which lets us understand how people are connected. We’ve actually invested a substantial effort in ingesting and analyzing talk radio from across the country at scale, Reddit online news, as we’ve analyzed Twitter, we can see sharing patterns by looking at a lot of what people tweet out are links, so if you follow the links, you can look for patterns of what it is people are being exposed to and choosing to transmit to others.

Maryam Banikarim: Humans need narrative and they need a way to be able to connect with each other, and stories will play that role. There’s a lot of unintended consequences that we all now live with, and understanding how machines will impact how we tell stories and the implications of that will be yet another thing that we’ll be wading into shortly.

For Nextdoor, we’re trying to figure out how we might do other kinds of content, but we clearly, so far, haven’t made the decision of going into news in that form. We do share information from governors, like the World Health Organization, that kind of a thing, but not news the way most people would consider it.

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We’re a community platform, not a free speech platform. That is an important distinction. Our CEO does a nice job of using this analogy, that a community platform is like, when I invite people from my neighborhood to my dinner party, you can disagree civilly, you can even take it into the kitchen, which would be the version of an online group. But the minute that you take the bottle of wine and empty it on somebody’s head, we’ll be asking you to leave because we expect civil behavior. Now that’s an easy thing to say; it’s a harder thing to do, as we all know.

Jolie Hunt: As someone who works with a lot of brands who are having their narratives defined by consumers, consumers that may not have ever even purchased from them. I think the voice of one is overpowering many right now.  There is so much desire to engage, but it is clouded by a tremendous amount of fear. Fear for saying the wrong thing, for not doing anything, for doing too much. And I think we are in a deficit of civil behavior in many respects.

There’s no way that brands can sit on the sidelines right now. You’re potentially toast if you don’t weigh in. So it’s a needle that a lot of people are trying to thread right now.

Lisa Utzschneider: I know major marketers who paused for a year on YouTube, and that it was mounting pressure, but it’s a little different right now with Facebook because it’s a perfect storm. We’re living in a global pandemic. We have Black Lives Matter, and we have an incredibly important election.

Marketers have been giving Facebook very direct feedback for quite some time about the News Feed, about Instagram, that they don’t work with any of the independent third-party verification companies to grade the homework, to make sure the adjacency of the content is brand safe and brand suitable. I do think that the pressure on Facebook will continue to mount.

Marianna Kantor: Most of the conversation so far has centered on what humans do . . . and not so much, how do we use data or technology to make the world a better place? I work for a technology company that uses a lot of data, and we believe in the power of location and locals. The more segmented and targeted we can be, the more relevant we can be.

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